Good morning. It is a great pleasure for me to talk with you, José Manuel, vice-president of engineering at General Dynamics European Land Systems and keynote speaker at our first European seminar on project-based learning.
The pleasure is mine. I’m delighted to be here.
I would like to delve deeper into some things. The first would be: how do you see the relationship between industry and the academic world?
In my experience, you could say that the academic world has three functions. The first is teaching, the second is research and the last is the transfer of knowledge to society. I think that the collaboration between industry and the academic world is very significant in any of the three aspects. In the first, teaching, the sooner the academic world and industry come together, the better the engineers who come out of the academic world. Engineers must face the stages they will find in the professional world, and the sooner that alliance is established, the better prepared they will be. In the second, in research, it is clear that we can undertake common projects, defined by industry, by the academic world and even by the government, when a doctoral candidate’s research project can be developed for a specific application in industry. Finally, in the third aspect, the transfer of knowledge to society, the best vehicle to do so are talented engineers who move on from the academic world to industry. Again, the sooner this alliance is established between industry and the academic world, the better prepared these engineers will be for the future.
We believe exactly the same thing. And a second question I’d like to ask you is: how do you see engineering in the future?
I think engineering is a way of life; it is more than just an educational specialization or a profession. I’ve tried to apply engineering to all aspects of my life. As an engineer, I can take on any situation without prejudice, based solely on the analysis of data, and make decisions based on facts. And these skills are developed in the educational stage and, then, with professional experience. These skills are timeless; they’re always there. I admit that there are many advances: we have the cloud, we have big data, we have simulations and extraordinary calculation tools, spectacular computers, etc. I admit it, but they are simply tools. If we have these skills, as well as the lack of prejudice when facing a situation, decision-making based on facts and data analysis, I think an engineer of the future is like an engineer of the past or of the present, but with better tools.
That is very interesting. But then we have a very severe problem, because as you know, students spend a limited amount of time with us, and just like you have to make difficult decisions in your company, in your designs or in the different initiatives you undertake, we have to make a decision: how do we organize the time the students spend with us? We’d like your opinion on the balance between providing them with a good theoretical base and sharing with them the practical aspect and all the applications. How can these two aspects be balanced?
OK, in theory, there is no contradiction and the question is well formulated. There is no contradiction between strict academic education and practical application. We need to know how to combine and find balance between both things. First, there are some skills that will be well served by the workshop on project-based learning, which I call super skills. These are skills that go beyond purely technical knowledge. I mean skills used to work in groups, to transmit the message to the audience and to communicate messages at deferent levels of interaction, as well as leadership skills. In my opinion, engineers arriving in the industry are lacking all of those things, and that problem can be solved through project-based learning. On the other hand, we have the traditional technical skills: profound technical knowledge. We can’t ignore that. What I mean is that when someone works for a technical company like mine, which seeks excellence in its processes and products, the smallest thing can make a world of difference, so it is important to have well trained professionals, with solid knowledge of the limits of technology. They are necessary without a doubt. Some educators say that they do not need solid knowledge in mathematics or physics because the data are already there, they just need to search for them and find them in the cloud. I don’t agree with that line of thought, because it holds back innovation. Innovation is part of every company with a technological agenda. Innovation doesn’t fall from the sky, rather it comes from in-depth knowledge of ideas and reflection on those ideas, which leads to a new idea. Thus, to generate innovation, it is necessary to have a good collection of ideas in mind. And if someone has to search for the data at every step of the innovation process, this process is interrupted. Therefore, solid knowledge is essential for an engineer. If an engineer has those super skills that I mentioned before, with solid technical data, then they will be the best.
This is very interesting because it has addressed a lot of technical issues, but you’ve used the word “company” a few times. At our polytechnic school, we try to teach our students precisely what you’ve indicated, but you work for a private company, which is a for-profit organization. Ours is also a private university that seeks to make a profit from its activities. My next question is: To what extend should technical students be familiar with the business environment and the language of business?
Well, that’s a good question, because at technical companies, we wage a battle every day. When they leave the university, engineers seek excellence. And that is completely legitimate. We all need to aspire to excellence always, in any field. So engineers want to achieve an excellent product. But excellence has many facets; it isn’t a monolithic concept. And here is trap. For a company, excellence translates into something very clear: creating value for the shareholders. And that does not go against the creation of an excellent product. What I’m saying is that an engineer needs to learn that the cost, calendar or compliance with the client’s specifications limit the design that must be added to the equation. Therefore, the creation of an excellent product leads me to a question: What is the best product? The best product is the one that can be sold. And that does not go against professional excellence.
That is very interesting. Undoubtedly, we need to take that into account. We constantly hear that technology is advancing at a dizzying speed and that some of the things learned in the classroom, unfortunately, or maybe not, end up becoming obsolete. Everything we teach them has an expiration date. To what extent is constant learning necessary? Can students afford to graduate, leave the university, start to work at a company and stay there without studying any further? What do you think? Do they need to update their knowledge and skills from time to time? I’m not referring to taking complete programs, rather short courses to keep up with the advances.
This is definitely a very interesting issue. I always say that learning is the best situation. We always like to learn. And constant learning can sometimes be an attitude, because one needs to be motivated to learn and prosper in a professional environment. It is necessary to return to the university to take courses. This is something that must also be addressed from the point of view of industry. We must have professional plans for our engineers and try to offer them the most modern technology and the best tools to do their work. But I need to clarify something: constant learning is not an option, rather an obligation. In today’s changing environment, constant learning is not an option, and if constant learners, if I might use that term, always seek out the limits of technology, they will be better prepared to face this environment.
How interesting. It could be said that today it is also a requirement to learn to work in a complex sociocultural environment. We live in a globalized world, we have clients in every corner of the globe and very long supply chains, with interested parties of different nationalities and different origins. Therefore, I believe we agree that it is also necessary to learn to manage this sociocultural diversity. To what degree to you believe that project-based learning makes it possible not only to understand the theory, but also to work with other people and, especially with people from other environments?
Well, diversity is diverse in and of itself. It has many facets. And, without a doubt, project-based learning is a methodology that can help, because it is the first thing that the engineers face when they reach the professional world. At General Dynamics, we have engineers of over 10 nationalities, we speak four languages and the engineers must learn to work in a multidiscipline world with different cultures, different languages, different ages… I mean, the paths are long, we probably have four or five generations of engineers, different learning techniques and ways of thinking, and I don’t mean just gender, rather an enormous diversity within the diversity. In short, project-based learning can help engineers initiate themselves in working as a group and working in different disciplines and functional areas in their initial phases, and that undoubtedly will help them be better prepared for the future.
José Manuel, thank you very much for sharing your valuable opinions and your experience with us. As always, it has been a pleasure to see you. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.